Hey Kisumu, clean up your air!

Kisumu is undergoing a major transformation - Preparing to host the Africities summit in November 2021 April 2022, the county government has been setting up public infrastructure, building footpaths (with rumours of bike paths! 😍), the construction of a new market complex (although the demolition of open-air markets before the launch of the new market has not gone down well with small-scale traders already hit hard by COVID) and even the revival of a colonial-era railway line. I’m excited to see what the city will look like later this year!

The air pollution problem

Kisumu’s air quality has gone completely unnoticed in this effort to “upgrade” the city. As I write this, Kisumu’s air quality index is hovering at 99, considered poor in most parts of the world. I wish I had known when I was moving into an apartment building that with the nice views of the hills in the distance, I’d also have to deal with the noxious fumes of burning garbage from nearby compounds burning dry leaves, or a few days’ worth of food, plastic and other waste. Running to the windows and closing them shut at the first whiff of burning garbage has become an unfortunate necessity. I’ve noticed I wake up with a sore throat or stuffy nose if I leave the bedroom window open all night.

Burning is the predominant form of waste management in Kenya, and notwithstanding National Environment Management Authority’s claim that burning of waste must be undertaken in a licenced incinerator, dumping garbage in a heap (either in a designated corner within one’s own compound or in a public field) and setting fire to it is a common sight in the evenings (Not wanting to breathe in the fumes is my current excuse for giving up on running in the evenings). It’s not much better using a garbage collection service - The building uses one, and chatting with the garbage collector, I found out that the collected garbage does not undergo segregation of any kind and all of it is burnt (I have no reason to think he meant incinerated and not just burnt in an open field on the outskirts of town).

At a time when WHO estimates that 7 million people die every year due to air pollution, of which 1 million are from the African continent, it doesn’t seem to me like there’s a national conversation on air pollution. The adverse effects of ambient air pollution are well established, and I think Kisumu has a great opportunity to address the pollution issue as the city continues to grow.

Reality

According to the City of Kisumu’s own Kisumu Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan (KISWaMP) strategy document (PDF), garbage collection rates are abysmal - In a city that produces 385 tons of waste every day, only 25% is effectively collected. The figures are worse for household waste - Only 3.1% of household waste is collected for garbage disposal. While the strategy document defines lofty goals for 2020 and 2030 including planning ahead for the growth of the city and decommissioning the Kachok dumpsite, its implementation is far from reality.

Here’s an idea

With a little financial help from international partners, I think Kisumu county could set up its own free citywide garbage collection service. On its own, or with the help of community based organisations and nonprofits, the county administration can widen access to proper garbage disposal to all parts of the city. The strategy document reveals willingness to use a disposal service and to learn segregation methods, which can be taught through community outreach programs.

Given that 65 - 70% of waste in Kisumu is estimated to be decomposable, organic materials, composting would significantly reduce the volume of garbage to be processed and transported to incinerators or landfills.

Why?

  • Clean air, water and soil: Improvement in the air quality, and reduction in the pollutants in the water (due to open dumping in the lake) and leachates in the soil would lead to better health outcomes and a lower healthcare expenditure burden on the county government over time.
  • Employment: 41% of people aged between 18 and 34 in Kisumu were unemployed, according to the 2019 census data. That was before COVID, so I can’t imagine how dire the situation must be nowadays (A few months ago, I saw about forty people queueing outside an office to apply for a security guard position!). Setting up a new waste management program, or supporting community based organisations in various estates/settlements of Kisumu could create hundreds of jobs!
  • Fertilizer: Compost is a great fertilizer. Composting organic waste and selling the compost to farmers at a nominal rate and conducting programs to increase awareness of compost use would be a self-sustaining source of revenue for the county’s garbage collection service and hopefully lead to better yield for farmers?
  • Aesthetically pleasing: Assuming improved access leads to a reduction in illegal dumping of waste in public fields, trenches and highways, Kisumu would be able to position itself as a clean, progressive city with a long-term vision.

Hike for Mental Health

Western Kenya LBQT Feminist Forum meetup in Kakamega forest

I attended the “Hike for mental health” event organised by Western Kenya LBQT Feminist Forum today.

I didn’t know Kisumu had an active grassroots-led LGBTQ group! When I came across the event on their Facebook page announcing a hike in Kakamega forest followed by a “vent session”, I immediately reached out to them.

As a cis Indian man in Kisumu, I was a bit worried I would come across as an intruder at an event led by Kenyan women when I met the group at the pickup point, but everyone was welcoming and I felt comfortable pretty quickly. I talked to many folks as we hiked through the forest, falling back from the group as people started opening up about themselves. I’m so overwhelmed and touched by everyone’s openness and willingness to be vulnerable in the company of strangers - People spoke of taking in many queer people who were kicked out of their homes when their families found out that they were queer during COVID lockdown, even though they were financially stretched thin themselves, reaching out to willing pastors to encourage them to avoid preaching against homosexuality and alienating (or worse, vilifying) vulnerable individuals in their congregations, being accused of trying to “convert” a heterosexual adult and dragged to a police station (It breaks me to think of the violence they must have experienced at the hands of the police), the everyday brutality of verbal abuse from Internet strangers on social media for being unapologetically queer, and the desire to create a safe space, both physical and mental, and using hikes as a way to allow queer people to speak freely as the small group hopes to mobilise funds to rent a physical space for a safe space and LGBTQ wellness centre.

On a personal note, for as long as I remember, I have struggled with my mental state, experiencing anxiety attacks, extreme mood swings, and withdrawing from the world for weeks at a time. Early this year however, I finally met with a psychiatrist, received a diagnosis and have been on medication that has made me feel like I’ve unlocked what I imagine “others” must have enjoyed throughout their lives - a stable state of mind! In a way, it feels like I’ve spent this year in isolation, looking inward and building up my strength to engage with the world. I could not have come across Kisumu’s fledgling LGBTQ group at a better time - I feel ready to put my energy to use for causes that are important to me, and the prospect of joining and supporting people who have been able to do so much with limited resources makes me happy.

P.S: If you’re able to support the organisation financially or otherwise, please get in touch with the organisers through the contact information on the Facebook page.

Fever Pitch

I spent a couple of blissful months unaware of the happenings of the world, cut off from my muscle-memory visits to The Guardian, Hacker News, Google News and a dozen other websites as I wait for my code changes to build. When I first stopped reading the news, I thought I’d miss being out of the loop and “relapse” pretty quickly, but I managed to hold off for about three months. Towards the end of it, I dipped back every week or two, mostly to know how COVID was ravaging the world and whether I’d be allowed back into India (Has any other country ever shut down all international flights and refused entry to its own citizens?), just in case that became a necessity. I even managed to read more long-form articles (Thanks Aeon!) and books, since there was a surprisingly big chunk of free time that I would have otherwise filled with news.

All of that came crashing down with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death last month, and the imminent US election. The anxiety of not knowing what was happening out there quickly exceeded the anxiety I felt when I tried to keep up with the news. I can’t think of a time when so much has hung in the balance of an election - The US is set to withdraw from the (non-binding!) Paris climate agreement in November, and those who wish to trample upon women’s rights are surely emboldened by the recent anti-choice declaration led by the US and of course, the coup de grâce, RBG’s replacement.

I’m really looking forward to cutting news out of my life again, but I cannot imagine skipping the news first thing in the morning for the next two weeks.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I struggled with last weekend’s news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.

Even though I have nothing whatsoever to do with the US, I remember feeling grateful and wildly optimistic as I followed along RBG’s championing of same-sex marriage rights at the US Supreme Court in 2015. For better or worse, America (yet?) wields enormous influence over the rest of the world, and that verdict seemed to pave the way for a lot of queer activism around the world. India’s Supreme Court striking down a section of a British-era law in 2018 that criminalized homosexual activities seemed to be a continuation of that wave of progress.

Reading RBG’s powerful dissents have often been a reprieve in an otherwise bleak decade, especially when I was in Poland as the Polish government tried to pass a total ban on abortion. Sisyphean though they might have been given the conservative majority in the US Supreme Court in recent years, it was refreshing to know that there was still room in the world for well-reasoned counterarguments and respect for diversity.

I can’t help but wonder how devastating it must be to pass away knowing that everything you stood for, everything you worked towards for decades, was never at greater risk of being destroyed at the hands of totalitarians in all but name. Is that when you truly grasp that “every generation must fight the same battles again and again” and hope that you’ve nudged the needle of progress forward at least a little bit? I just read the progressive Kannada author U R Ananthamurthy’s ಹಿಂದುತ್ವ ಅಥವಾ ಹಿಂದ್ ಸ್ವರಾಜ್?, his final work before his death in 2014 that chronicles the secular or religious Indian identity that newly independent India had to choose between in the last century, and how that planted the seed for Hindu nationalism in present-day Indian society. Written at a time when Modi’s election-winning vision of an unabashedly Hindu nation found many takers, it reads like a breathless lament for the hard-fought progress that might soon be dismantled.

I know, I know that we’re making progress on a lot of fronts, even if that sometimes just means having conversations about things that might have gone unnoticed a few years ago, but when I hear of the death of someone as pivotal as RBG to social change in recent memory, I find myself thinking that the walls are closing in as the steady drumbeat of fascism’s march to power across the world gets louder, and can’t help but feel despondent.

I suppose all you can do is pick your battles, stay the course and hope that it makes a difference.

Thank you, Duchess of Krakenthorp

Gardening during COVID

Hello!

It’s been a while, and I’m trying to get back to blogging.

I’m alive and well, and I’ve spent most of this year in Kisumu. I was in Kisumu when countries started restricting international flights, and I just couldn’t decide whether to go to India or elsewhere, so I stayed put.

In hindsight, it was a great decision. I took over the office compound, which felt like an island, cut off from the realities and rapidly rising daily statistics of the outside world. The compound also has lots of space, and since I’ve always harboured ideas of living on a self-sustaining farm one day, I took up gardening.

The first order of business was to eliminate food waste from garbage. Burning is the predominant method of waste management in Kenya, and it’s sadly quite common to see plumes of smoke in the evenings as people set their garbage on fire.

I remember reading about compost circles (but I can’t seem to find any reference to it online!) and decided to use one for composting. A compost circle is a circle that’s about half or one-foot deep (depending on the amount of food waste your household produces) that you fill with your food waste. If the circle is big enough, it should take you about 6 weeks to complete a full circle, by which time the first section of the circle should have turned into fresh compost. It’s a great, continuous source of compost for your plants

Digging a compost circle

With food waste covered, it was time to make sure I had a source of fresh vegetables - I dug two patches of about 2m X 3m, and planted green beans (I found a dried-up plant elsewhere within the compound and used the dry, pearly black seeds in pods, unsure if they would grow, but grow they did), cucumbers and tomatoes. It’s astonishing how quickly beans grow and how resilient they are to poor watering and intense sunlight - While the tomato plants drooped and wilted if they weren’t watered abundantly everyday, the beans seemed to flourish. Within a month, the bean plants had flowered and produced sweet, fresh beans. I’d take a break after work meetings in the evenings to water the plants and snack on young beans fresh off the plant 😍

The cucumber plants started off well, but the leaves turned yellow and the tiny cucumbers whose growth I was so excited to monitor everyday died on the vine before they could ripen. I realised it was a mistake to plant them in a spot that received sunlight for at least eight hours everyday - While the beans and tomato plants loved the direct sunlight, I believe cucumbers like the shade. Talking to a friend about the cucumber situation, I learnt there are insects that burrow into the soil and destroy the roots of cucumber plants. I did not get to confirm this because the cucumber plants were already too far gone.

Fresh green beans and the late office dog Kike, patiently waiting for treats

I purchased tomato seeds of a variety called “Rio Grande”. I’m not sure if it’s true of tomatoes in general or the variety I tried, but tomato plants need a lot of love! Careful, plentiful watering at a consistent schedule, trellis/support, and more susceptible to diseases.

Fresh tomatoes

Gardening is such a joy, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity and the space to experiment with it. For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about finding a piece of land somewhere, growing my own food, if only just to feed myself, and living the life of a hermit in an environmentally sustainable way. COVID lockdowns gave me an opportunity to test that lifestyle, and I’m more confident now that I can swing it!